Sunday, 9 November 2008

Guest Post: The Not-So-Secret Ballot

Thanks to katy who sent this in this morning; she poses an interesting point that we tend to take for granted the idea that every woman's vote is her own to cast as she will.

Yesterday, I acted as a scrutineer for the Greens at a polling booth in the Epsom electorate. We were in a church and the voting stations were extremely close to each other, perhaps 30cm apart. Certainly close enough that you could look over your neighbour's shoulder. It was a busy polling booth (1250 people voted here in 2005) and while there were plenty of staff busy giving out papers and stickers, none of the paid staff was taking responsibility for ensuring that we could vote in peace and privacy.

Like many people I spent months and months campaigning for this election and one of the assumptions that I always made was that the polling booth would provide people the space to vote alone and in peace. However, it all felt quite undignified, with friends chatting and looking over each other's shoulders as people cast their vote, and I was sorry for this.

The more serious issue, however, was that a situation was created where women in particular did not have the privacy to cast a secret vote. The National Party scrutineer (a woman) and I saw time and time again men (fathers, partners) standing behind women in the polling stations as they voted. The National Party scrutineer challenged the polling booth manager to provide a voting environment where privacy was possible, especially for women, but the situation did not improve and it was up to us to repeatedly draw attention to people talking or voting in groups.

On one occasion, after we had drawn the attention of the polling booth manager to two people conferring, I overheard this senior, paid official say to the voters, "Don't talk - the scrutineers are watching".

The moral of the story?

1. We can't assume that polling stations are safe places for women; this one wasn't. This was not a space where one could be certain that their vote was secret, on the contrary, it was a space where we saw men monitoring the voting of women. When this was pointed out to the person responsible for the booth it was not taken seriously.
2. Scrutineers make a difference. By responding to the situation, the National Party scrutineer and I did force some small improvements.
3. Please act as a scrutineer in the next election.


Tui said...

I was going to work up a post on this of my own: this is an experience I had in a Christchurch Central polling station.

The station was pretty quiet when I was there and there were no scrutineers about. I was outside my electorate so I had to cast a special vote, and there was a couple ahead of me in the queue - both special votes and Port Hills votes were being cast at this table (the other table being Central.) I hesitate to describe the couple, but it's important for the rest of the story: it was comprised of an older Pakeha man, between 50 and 60 years old, and a significantly younger woman who was clearly an immigrant to this country from Asia. She and her partner were getting ballots from the voting officer, and she seemed to be speaking English with a reasonable degree of fluency - I was there with others and not paying a lot of attention at this juncture, but there weren't very extensive communication difficulties.

As they walked to the polling booths, he took her ballot and pointed to it, saying clearly "This is [party redacted for the sake of neutrality] here, and this is [redacted] here." They went to the booths, did the voting thing, and as they went to deposit their votes she held up her paper to him and asked him to approve it. I muttered something about this not being exactly secret ballot and he rounded on me, saying that his wife or partner "doesn't read English."

Now, someone may correct me on the plausibility of someone being able to speak enough English to identify herself, and to (presumably) get around in this country, but yet not be able to recognise a large letter of a specific colour after surely seeing much party material over the last few weeks. And, after all, how you choose to vote is up to you. But I found this woman's position extraordinarily vulnerable. If she is so set on voting for [party redacted], she ought to make herself understood to a scrutineer (although, of course, there were none in this polling place - a problem in itself.) Moreover, surely her husband ought to be ensuring that she reads enough English to vote herself.

The irony, too, of the party in question being one of those parties which is in favour of only allowing immigrants speaking English to come to this country is, well, it's astounding. I'm not sure if I would have been as angry if the vote had been cast for a party I voted for, but I really hope I would have been.

muerk said...

Obviously we need the little orange guy to do some education on the standards of our voting procedures.

Individual secrecy is a linchpin of democracy and it needs to be the expectation that we all hold to. Perhaps the younger woman was able to cast a vote how she freely wished, but then, perhaps not.

The behavior outlined by the post and tui's comment really bothers me.

stargazer said...

one story i heard was off a person coming in with 5 easy vote cards, and asking to cast all 5 votes because the people whom the cards belonged to were overseas. the worst thing was that the worker started peeling off 5 forms, before being stopped by a scrutineer. of course, this is hearsay, but you really have to wonder about the level of training being given.

Kimberley said...

Katy and tui, this is disturbing. Have you reported it further up the chain?

Hugh said...

I'm curious. What powers do electoral workers actually have when they see people breaking the law this way? Can they do anything other than ask?

Not that I'd advocate breaking out the jackboots on this one. And invalidating people's votes on the basis that they weren't secret would not solve the problem.

I guess this is one of the occasions where people starting contemplating education as a solution...

Alison said...

I wish I'd read all this before I scrutineered for the Greens on Saturday (first time scrutineering). I did hear many men say "my wife doesn't speak english", but generally the issuing officers were very good at insisting on the women doing it themselves. In a small but very busy polling booth however, I really had very little view of the booths themselves. In the future I'll push harder to make sure I can see that properly.

Anonymous said...

As far as speaking but not reading the language, that's easy to do. If you learn a language by immersion rather than study it's easy even to be fluent but illiterate (we have native English speakers in that position). Especially if the language uses a new set of glyphs (hands up all the "I speak a bit of Japanese but can't read at all").

The ex-expat said...

Actually the not 'reading the language' excuse is arse. The electoral commission has resources in at least 10-12 of the common second languages in New Zealand.

As far as speaking but not reading the language, that's easy to do
Depends I can read Korean better than I can speak it because the alphabet is so easy. But that doesn't mean I can always understand what it says.

Alison said...

The reason I know the excuse was arse in some of these cases is that when the issuing officers requested they deal with each person individually, the women managed just fine. They understood what their easy vote card was for, they communicated just fine, they happily walked off to the booth with their voting paper and put it in the right box afterwards. Seems like maybe we had some experienced and strong issuing officers up in our corner of Ohariu keeping people on the straight and narrow!

Christina said...

These examples of possible voter influence concern me a lot. And I do wonder if the solution is more structural than educational - e.g. Secrecy of voting would be more assured if we actually had curtained voting 'booths' that only one person could enter, a clear process for lining up and entering the booth, and boxes to place your vote adjacent to each booth so the vote could be placed there on exiting (rather than having to walk across the hall as it was where I voted). I guess this more robust voting infrastructure would be more expensive than our current cardboard cutouts. But really, isn't democracy worth it? Is there any way to ensure that these instances are reported (to the Chief Electoral Officer I presume)?

glosoli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stargazer said...

doesn't look like the electoral officers are at all concerned about this kind of thing, if the following article is anything to go by:

Anonymous said...

Re the main point of the original post. Were you honestly unaware of how coerced, in different ways, great numbers of women still are in this (the matter of casting a vote) and so many other matters?

When the coercion is not intensely, and some would consider criminally personal, there's still the socio-economic implications of compulsory pairing (pref hetero) as the primary economic unit, which translates into what's good for our "betters", that is, men (individually and collectively), must be good for us. Sometimes they say that directly to us, individually, in one way or another, mostly it's just in the water, so to speak.

Neither education nor greater privacy around voting are a proper, or true, answer (though I somewhat appreciate the intent and some of the results of incremental change).

Cutting straight to the heart of the matter, the socio-economic liberation of women from men is the answer. Women's liberation from a system still dominated by men, by enculturated "masculinity" in all its forms is the answer.

That wouldn't mean, I don't think, women getting, or being encouraged to be more ballsy, or ovariasy... what women need is space to breathe and be, to truly freely think and act on our own thoughts.

Believe it or not, remarkably few women have that space individually, which certainly translates into a collective scarcity of freedom, still.

Radically Yours

Anonymous said...

Anon, yes, I hear you, these issues are still well and truly entrenched. Living in my liberal bubble, however, it had been a while since I had seen men standing over a woman in such a way. My own husband isn't a kiwi and when we are in NZ I am the one with insider knowledge, it is a different dynamic. katy

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, katy. I find it really difficult to say anything of any substance around the liberal-lefty 'sphere, knowing that chances are good I will come across like an angry (and possibly disturbed) relic. And I can lol! about that on days when I'm not too frustrated by it.

There is quite a gulf, though, between the day to day realities of many, if not most of this country's womenfolk and the women (and men) who people the liberal-lefty sphere.

I really only became aware of that gulf, of The Liberal Bubble specifically, when speaking with someone who worked in policy around s59 who was all-but traumatised to discover the attitudes of large sectors of the population around that.

Too, I very occasionally meet people come from elsewhere to my provincial town, which is not so different from most provincial towns, or the suburbs of larger cities for that matter, who are gobsmacked by the attitudes of the majority of the people here, and feel like they've stepped into some sort of time warp or altered reality. There are truly some very different worlds seemingly rotating on their separate axes (the plural of axis?) within this one country.

I hope I don't come across personally or generally critical of that liberal bubble... it's just a thing, a thing that it's probably all round good to be aware of, especially as it's a thing that can throw up walls and misunderstanding between us* sometimes.
*"Us" being women living our different lives in different places, surrounded by different kinds of people.

Tui said...

Anon, your comments are interesting and they're really challenging me, which is only a good thing. However, half the population of New Zealand lives in non-urban areas, but you dismissed the experiences of urbanised women as "the liberal bubble." While I appreciate that urbanised individuals are short-sighted, I think that this is not only a liberal problem - and that country folk (sorry, I'm a city girl myself) do not actually represent the oppressed and misunderstood majority.

Anonymous said...

I guess I did dismiss urbanised women, in general terms, though that was not my intent. I apologise.

It was also not my intent to imply that all country folk are oppressed and misunderstood. Did I sound like I was claiming oppression for the provinces? Seem to be speaking out of whatever is the city/country divide? Certainly I would never mean to play into any divide (which, of course, generalities of any sort may do! or be read as, at least). That's the last thing I'd ever set out to do.

It was my intent to point out that those who live lives in social circles, wherever they may be situated (urban, suburban, provincial, rural*,) where inequality between women and men seems to have all but disappeared, might be having an exceptional or the anomalous experience.
*have I left out or inadvertently dismissed any other accepted situation?

I will admit to feeling frustrated, rather than feeling or claiming to be oppressed by women who are either unaware or may have forgotten that their own experience is not more or less universal, those who are sometimes dismissive of women who might just need to tug on those bootstraps or "grow a pair" when they haven't any straps for their boots (if they have those either) and their "pair" has shrivelled for want of sunlight and air. Not that anybody did that in this discussion, but it's never that far away when lots of those who might or could be identified as liberals are confirmed supporters of "educate" the people (and/or "grow the economy!" for that matter) as the answers to the supposed remnants of inequity within this country.

Anyway, while I seem to have digressed mightily (though I've said nothing that's not part of the bigger picture to my mind), I primarily wrote what I did, what I have written, to draw attention to the fact that the situations that katy, and you too, tui, witnessed are definitely not isolated but are rather indicative of a general state of affairs (that I'm sure is the experience of many urbanised women too!), a state of affairs outside of what is quantified by the sorts of stat's that speak only to a few specifics - refer the states of affairs of women world-wide spoken of in the recent something to be ashamed of post.

It's really easy to imagine ourselves so far removed from the women in other lands whose bodies are being warred on so brutally and in such large numbers, that we should just thank our lucky stars (or so our "betters" would suggest, maybe even insist upon) that we are not those "other" women (and just shut the f up about our wee, negligible, niggly, little "issues" here).

Interesting, too, how it's often easier to empathise and sometimes commit to action across wider gulfs and geographic distances, so that child poverty and the ongoing rape, beating and general oppression of women in this country is what..? attributable only to personal failing, "bad" individual choices? Or so women's overarchingly socio-economic betters would have us believe.

Whew! Head of steam dissipated now. And honestly not directed at any one woman, or specific group of women.

I guess I should get a handle if I'm going to write much here (I might try for Radically Yours, RY for short), though to write much here in the vein that is mine would surely draw the most odious of haters to this space, and I don't want to do that because I do admire what The Hand Mirror does (despite the fact that many threads that could get right down to the nitty gritty end up drifting middly, IMNSHO!).